Here’s how to easily clean your Windows drive for optimal performance

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Whether you have a state-of-the-art ultra-fast solid-state drive or an old magnetic hard drive, you’re probably filling them up with a ton of files you no longer need. Stockpiling involves more than just keeping your old essays from the high school you graduated from decades ago. Your computer likely has apps and games you no longer touch or lots of temporary files lurking in dark corners. These are some of our recommendations to recover disk space and organize our data.

Get started with cleaning up old programs

We’ll start with what is usually the easiest process, selecting software that is no longer needed. In Windows 10 and 11, installed programs can appear in a couple of different places depending on their type. The old “Add or Remove Programs” pillar still exists in Control Panel. However, this list doesn’t show new UWP apps from sources like the Windows Store. Instead, we’ll head into Windows Settings and then dive into “Apps & Features.”

By default, this will list installed programs in alphabetical order. The “sort” option at the top may allow you to change this to sort by install size or date. You can use this to quickly spot larger apps or target older installs that you may have forgotten about. The filter option is useful if you have programs installed on multiple drives so you can target only the drives that need a break.

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Removing old software is a good place to start

In my case, I no longer use this AVerMedia capture card in favor of the EVGA XR1. Therefore, this is an easy target for removal. Some apps can be uninstalled directly from this menu, while others will direct you elsewhere. For example, most x86 apps will be redirected to Control Panel for uninstallation, while Steam games will show up in your Library. Most apps take up kilobytes to megabytes of space, but deleting old games can often result in gigabytes of savings.

Tackle junk files automatically

The next area to tackle is all the junk files your system accumulates over time. This can take the form of temporary files generated by applications such as the web browser that can be safely discarded, old update files, older versions of the operating system, and more. We’ll also add the Downloads folder to this section, which is often full of stuff you no longer need or can easily download again. Before you continue, navigate to your Downloads folder and move anything important to another place, as the next step is pretty indiscriminate.

Windows 10 added a Storage Sense tool to help address these buildups. It can be accessed by opening Windows Settings, then going to System followed by Storage. First, set preferences for how long items should be kept in the Recycle Bin and Downloads folder. These can be set to Never. However, we recommend 30 and 60 days respectively, as you shouldn’t store anything important in these folders long-term. Storage Sense also works in conjunction with OneDrive to free up local space by keeping your files in the cloud with similar retention options.

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Storage Sense can automate clutter cleanup

Once you’ve set your preferences, click “Run Storage Sense Now”. This will obey your retention settings and will also delete temporary files. If you want, you can set it to run automatically at a schedule you choose, for example monthly, or just once your drive runs out of space.

Chase all the trash

You can also try the Disk Cleanup tool for a more in-depth and manual alternative. To access this, click the Start button and type “Disk Cleanup”; just start typing and the search box will appear, then click the Disk Cleanup icon. If prompted, choose your destination drive to clean and click OK. This tool will display a long list of options to select from, but it is still not exhaustive. If you are a computer administrator, you can click the “Clean System Files” button to point to more locations.

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Disk Cleanup goes a little deeper

All available options, even as an administrator, can be safely selected without damaging your computer. Just make sure you don’t need to roll back your version of Windows or save something from the Recycle Bin first. Each line will indicate how much disk space it contributes to a total amount that will be saved by your selections below.

Now face your addiction to data hoarding

The above tools are not enough to deal with the biggest problem. Data hoarding like a packrat can only be combated by manually tracking down files you no longer need. That doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. There are several apps out there to help you visualize where most of your data is hiding.

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Windows now tries to characterize your data

You may have noticed that Windows tries to provide you with a breakdown of your data into different categories in the above process. For example, Settings > System > Storage shows that my computer has 826 GB of video, 324 GB occupied by apps and features, 73.6 GB residing locally from OneDrive, and 491 GB of “Other” data. It is useful? Maybe, but we can do much better.

Enter WizTree Disk Analyzer. This free app scans the desired storage drive or folder. It then creates multiple views of your data. The default tab is Tree View, which maps all folders on the drive and reports their size and the relative amount of drive space consumed. For our purposes, we actually want to see the Assigned column instead of Size. In cases like OneDrive, the Size column shows what the capacity used by all the files would be if they were available locally. It’s useful if you also want to reduce your cloud storage, but Allocated shows the actual amount of disk space currently used.

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WizTree makes manual data cleaning much easier

In my case, this revealed a Photos folder at the root of my C: drive that was consuming 434.7 GB of space. It turned out that this folder was a backup that I created when moving files to support new HDDs on my Synology NAS. I no longer need them stored locally, so I can delete them.

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I don’t need 827.0 GB of locally stored raw video files

I also see that my Users folder is typically 2TB in size and consumes just over 1TB of local disk space. I can drill down with the more button on the left to see that most of this comes from Videos. I don’t need 827.0 GB of video footage stored locally on my system. This is a perfect candidate to move to my NAS for archiving, which can now hold 16TB.

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Sort strictly by file size if you prefer

For another view, the bottom of the window shows each file by size and directory. Larger squares or rectangles indicate larger files. If your goal is just to find large files individually, click the File View tab instead of Tree View. The File View tab is a sortable list of all your files, sorted by size by default. Here I can see that my video folder contains many individual multi-gigabyte files that I could choose to select individually if I didn’t have my archive NAS.

what to do next

After all of this, it’s probably worth taking a moment to tune up your system as well. Windows has a habit of letting your system files get corrupted, but this simple command can fix it right away. You’ll also want to make sure your security settings are correct and that your antivirus isn’t burning up system resources without your knowledge. You might even want to make Windows feel more personal with this desktop customization guide.

We hope that these techniques can help you reclaim some of your precious disk space. Be sure to donate to the developers to continue the great work if you found WizTree useful. We have no affiliation with WizTree, we just like it. If you want an alternative to WizTree, we’ve also enjoyed TreeSize. However, it doesn’t scan as fast or provide the useful visual representation at the bottom. Of course, if you want to see more guides like this or support our independent journalism, please consider contributing to our Patreon.

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